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My Favorite Shibboleth

Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton

Early in the word-processing era, it was difficult or in some cases impossible to italicize words, and so one underlined them instead. When doing so, a colleague of mine always took special care not to underline the spaces between the words of a title. That is, instead of The Winds of War, he would write The Winds of War. He endured the chore of several additional keystrokes because he felt that a line under a space is meaningless. This was not unreasonable, but may have put too fi…

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Selfies With Sunnies

Back in the 1980s, the “post-punk” duo calling themselves Timbuk 3 looked like they were headed for popular success. (And they were.) According to Wikipedia, Barbara MacDonald said to her husband, “the future is looking so bright, we’ll have to wear sunglasses.” Pat MacDonald translated that as “The future’s so bright, I gotta wear shades,” and in 1986 their ironic hit song was born, which as it happened became their greatest success.

You can still watch their video of it on YouTube.

It begins:

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Pivoting Away from ‘Pivot’

Screen Shot 2016-05-25 at 10.41.46 AMHillary Clinton keeps trying to pivot to the general election. But Bernie Sanders — like a white-haired white Bill Russell — won’t let her.

I will let the pundits break down the politics involved. What interests me is pivot. Originally a noun meaning (in the Oxford English Dictionary‘s words) a “short shaft or pin on which a mechanism turns or oscillates,” it was being used as early as 1841 to refer to the act of turning, as if on a pivot. That’s where the basketball maneuver, and that sport’s n…

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I Am So Uber You

Action_Comics_1It began with Nietzsche. Now it’s about taxicabs.

We have entered the world of uberness, or possibly Überness. The Übermensch, Nietzsche suggested in Also Sprach Zarathustra, is an alternative to divine authority, a model for living beyond what he regarded acidly as the restrictive values of organized religion.

Nietzsche’s early translators struggled to English the term Übermensch, and we’re still not really there. Overman, Superman — neither feels quite right. Both feel awfully 1938. On the …

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Syntactic Self-Harm on St. James’s Street

Economist_building,_London,_1959-1964

Economist Plaza, St. James’s Street, London

I love and admire The Economist; I itch for my copy to arrive each Saturday morning. But I have sometimes had to criticize the grammatical stipulations of that august magazine’s editors. At one point I actually ventured the opinion that they were deliberately trying to annoy me by using phrasings that they knew I would hate (Language Log, September 4, 2015). But I recently had a chance to discover whether such paranoia had any basis. Let me explain.

My…

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Trying to Write the Mighty Line

sapphicFor years, now, I’ve taught a mixed-genre “Introduction to Creative Writing” course with a very specific poetry component. Each student in the class must choose a poetic form he or she loves; I suggest two dozen of them, and leave books explicating several dozen other choices on the shelf outside my office. Each student gives a short presentation on their chosen form — its provenance, history, development, parameters, and best-known practitioners. They recite from memory at least 12 lines of a…

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DARE to Carry Guts to a Bear

DARE 03af27e0171c51712aee768a333b41abIn 1985, to much acclaim, Harvard University Press published an ABC of American English — the first volume of the monumental Dictionary of American Regional English, edited by Frederic G. Cassidy and covering the first three letters of the alphabet.

That was more than 30 years ago. And the fieldwork on which much of the dictionary was based (it also made extensive use of other studies and examples) took place in the 1960s, half a century ago. So what has happened since?

The last volume of the c…

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‘Genderqueer’ and ‘Baconsphere’

I remember the moment when I lost my innocence as regards dictionaries. I was a teenager with bookish inclinations (I had been able to read since I was 3 years old), and I was used to being well acquainted with just about every English word I heard or saw in print. But at some point (I no longer remember the context) I encountered, in a clearly respectable source, the word charisma. I had never heard it or seen it. This disturbed me, so I turned to my 1951 edition of the Concise Oxford Dictionar…

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Language Shrapnel

fbomb-e1378933217819When Joe Biden famously muttered an f-bomb-modified plaudit for the Affordable Care Act, many news outlets left his exact phrasing to readers’ imaginations. The New York Times reported his saying, “Mr. President, this is a big [expletive] deal.” The Atlantic referred to Biden’s “accidentally audible profanity” and mentioned T-shirts sporting the slogan, “Health Reform Is a BFD.” But the Huffington Post, The Guardian, Salon, and New York Magazine reported the gaffe exactly as uttered.

Where do we…

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Dashing Through

Dash copyOnce you start using the dash in your writing, it can be hard to stop. I’m talking about the em-dash here — that punctuation mark that is so helpful at linking phrases and clauses that don’t seem well served by a comma, semi-colon, or colon.

I started wondering the other day whether — and how badly — one can misuse the dash. Most style guides provide a good amount of leeway in terms of how the dash can function — it can function like a colon (as it did right there), parentheses (as it did …